Coal mining deaths on the rise

Published 9:57 am Friday, January 12, 2018

A year after recording a record low of eight coal mining deaths in 2016, the number of mining deaths nearly doubled to 15 deaths in 2017. Eight of those deaths were in neighboring West Virginia with two mining deaths in Kentucky. No other state had more than one coal-mining death during the year, with Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming each recording one mining death.

However, President Donald Trump’s controversial appointment of retired coal company executive David Zatezalo as the new chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration has raised concerns among some that coal mining deaths could continue to rise if MSHA under Zatezalo eases mine safety regulations.

Zatezalo is a Wheeling, West Virginia resident who retired in 2014 as chairman of Rhino Resources. In November, he was narrowly approved by the U.S. Senate to head MSHA.

Email newsletter signup

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, opposed Zatezalo’s appointment because he was not convinced a former coal-mining executive was best suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.

Trump repeatedly voiced support for the coal industry during his presidential campaign. The increasing reliance on natural gas and other less expensive sources of energy has prompted coal use to diminish.

Last month the Trump administration brought up for review standards implemented by Barack Obama’s administration that lowered the allowable limits for miners’ exposure to coal dust. MSHA indicated it is reconsidering rules meant to protect underground miners from breathing coal and rock dust — the cause of black lung — and diesel exhaust, which can cause cancer.

For his part, Zatezalo has said his priority was preventing people from getting hurt.

“President Trump is strongly committed to the health and safety of America’s miners,” Zatezalo said in a statement. “At MSHA, our focus is on ensuring that every miner is able to return safely to their loved ones at the end of every shift. To ensure the health and safety of miners, MSHA will continue to vigorously emphasize safety enforcement, technology, education and training, and compliance and technical assistance.”

Those are the right words, and we trust Zatezalo’s actions as head of MSHA will match his words.

The number of coal mining fatalities was under 20 for the fourth straight year after reaching exactly 20 in 2011, 2012 and 2013. By comparison, in 1966, the mining industry counted 233 deaths. A century ago there were 2,226.

Clearly, coal mining is much safer today than it was decades ago, and MSHA deserves its share of credit for the fewer mining deaths. Our hope is that MSHA under Zatezalo’s leadership will not allow coal mines to cut corners on safety to reduce costs and increase profits. Time after time, OSHA inspectors investigating mining deaths have found that safety regulations were ignored to allow mine operators to cut operating costs. That can’t be allowed to continue to happen.

The Daily Independent